Life Is Not a Marathon

You’ve heard people say, “life’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon”. Ok, it may not be a sprint, but “marathon” isn’t the best metaphor either.

A marathon is long, but it has an end. Even while battling the 26.2 miles of a marathon, you can push yourself knowing that in a few hours the race will be over, you’ll be showered up and kicking your feet up at home.

Some seasons of life are like marathons, but life is different.

Life is more like a persistence hunt.

In Born to Run, Chris McDougall tells about the Bushmen of the Kahlahari Desert who are the last people known on earth to use a hunting technique known as “persistence hunting”. The technique includes a group of hunters running after an antelope for hours and hours, slowly wearing the animal down.

(Wait, outrun an antelope?!? Turns out humans are uniquely capable of running, not because we’re the fastest, but because our independent breathing and cooling systems let us run much longer than any other mammal. Go humans! The Bushmen outrun an antelope by running longer, not faster, than the animal.)

Louis Leibenberg, who lived with this desert tribe for several years and learned the technique, explains the process:

The pace wasn’t too fierce; the Bushmen average about ten minutes a mile, but many of those miles are in soft sand and brush, and they occasionally stop to study tracks. They’d still fire the jets and take off in a sprint, but they knew how to keep trotting afterward and recover on the run. They had to, because a persistence hunt was like showing up at the starting line without knowing if you were running a half marathon, marathon, or ultra.

As a runner, I definitely prefer knowing how far I’m running before I start, so I know how to pace myself (or, because if the distance is too far I wouldn’t bother starting in the first place ;) ).

But I think there’s a life lesson in these Kahlahari hunters’ approach to running.

We can take on any amount of stress, busyness, and ambition for a short period of time. We “push through” the end of a semester, or a busy season of work, knowing that the end is in sight.

But the arc of your life is different. There’s no specific end in sight, so you have to set a pace that’s sustainable for a very long time.

That means learning to rest.

And saying “no” sometimes.

And knowing when to push, and when to ease up.

After a while, Louis began to look at running the way other people look at walking; he learned to settle back and let his legs spin in a quick, easy trot, a sort of baseline motion that could last all day and leave him enough reserves to accelerate when necessary.

How do you pace yourself when there’s no finish line in sight?

Because unlike a marathon, the goal in life isn’t to finish as quickly as possible.

The goal is to keep running.